After a winding, checkered career, the pseudonymous novels of Jack Ketchum have provided the blueprint for a couple solid screen adaptations in recent years, including The Lost and The Girl Next Door. The latest, and best, is Red, a layered, well acted tale of escalating revenge, a Walking Tall-type scenario filtered through the rubric of quiet atonement and reparation.
A widowed Korean War vet, Avery Ludlow (Brian Cox) lives alone in a dusty rural town, where he runs the local hardware store. Avery’s best friend and faithful companion is a 14-year-old ginger-haired dog. One day, an idyllic fishing trip at a remote spot in the woods is interrupted by three teenagers, and a senseless act of cruelty: at point-blank range, Red is shot and killed. Devastated, Avery sets out to find the boys, and quickly tracks down ringleader Danny (Noel Fisher, resembling a younger version of Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong), a hotheaded punk whose redneck-made-good father, Michael McCormack (Tom Sizemore), has enabled his misbehavior over the years by covering up for him and buying his way out of his mistakes.
Wanting only to extract an apology and some promise of private punishment, Avery is stonewalled. When Michael then uses his influence to block Avery’s legal recourse, Avery responds to each grievance with further legitimate attempts to mete out justice in modulated fashion. Eventually things come to a head, however, with upward-spiraling consequences for all involved.
There’s some awkwardness at blending into the narrative a reporter, Carrie Donnel (Kim Dickens), who wants to use her pulpit to play advocate to Avery’s story, but co-directors Lucky McKee (May) and Trygve Allister Diesen succeed in transposing the authenticity of setting from the novel, which further roots the movie in convincing fashion. Red feels sure-footed, properly scaled and inherently knowable; all its interactions and plot advancements make sense, which is a bit of a rarity in modern thrillers. Its modest budget requires some off-screen concessions for bigger moments in the story (including an act of arson and a car crash), though for the most part this works OK — the notable exception being some climactic gunplay that’s confusingly staged, and shot in the dark woods.
Red is at its best in the slow-building set-up that finds Avery doing the legwork of expiation. The killing of his beloved dog, while it carries its own significant emotional weight, is also a powerful symbol for the injustices and inequities of life, as we’re later reminded by a dark monologue about his tragic past. Brian Cox is just the right sort of quiet, steadying presence for this movie. His Avery Ludlow, who could be a distant cousin of Tommy Lee Jones‘ lawman from No Country For Old Men, is a quintessentially American character — decent, stoic and perhaps privately bewildered by wanton malice, but unbowed in the pursuit of justice. (Magnolia, R, 96 minutes)